“I’m not the tiger he never had,
I’m not the first hit when you got it bad.
I’m not your second, I’m not your third but
I’ll be your bird.
I’m not your Chesnutt,
I’m not your Mould,
I’m not your DJ on late night radio,
I’ll be the first one to ask where you were,
I’ll be your bird.”
~I’ll Be Yr Bird
M.Ward, Transistor Radio
This is my favorite album today, simply because I forgot it existed and how gorgeous it is. M.Ward is one of the most effective active songwriters, who I remember loving a good 10-12 years ago before his sound seemed to be adopted by a hundred others. When I first heard “Carolina.” his voice hypnotized me and my heart broke and to this day it’s one of my favorite songs. But as far as his impressive album catalog goes, I think “Transistor Radio” is my favorite – because of the way it flows, the way it cackles, the way it sucks you in and creates so much space between the sounds.
I’ve made the mistake of abandoning my guitar a little too much lately, and this record makes me want to run home and play, play, play. When this guy solos you can feel the pluck of every string – and while he plays at the pinnacle of folk mastery, there’s an allegiance to the basics before showing off. He shows how much you can do with strumming and just a couple layers of sound and harmonies. The lap steel highlights are subtle enough to be heard without kitsch. Upbeat moments are Americana through and through, and the plucked solos shine among the saloon-style piano.
Lyrically, our narrator is a sad, solitary heart who weeps openly throughout, using these effortless verses that don’t follow a strict structure, that don’t beg for hooks, and instead just breeze across the guitars’ backbone. He doesn’t overly dress up the hook, opting for choice phrases that are repeated, and his voice is as quintessential as they come. I love how unencumbered his words are – how free from overemphasis they are – keeping it simple through and through.
In this era, when the sensitive twee songwriter type is a dime a dozen, and that folksy Americana sound has been homogenized and filtered and adopted by the mainstream, it is a worthy trip back to examine the modern roots of this sound. The kind of sound songwriters like M.Ward were polishing off long before some one-off seven-piece was soundtracking fashion commercials with their mediocre banjo solos. Happy to have rediscovered this record now, as is it carries the perfect fall aesthetic – soft and patient, wistful and warm, all the things you feel when the sky is suddenly dark and the near-dead leaves crunch under your feet and your heart finds a little comfort in the cold.
“I dug beneath the wall of sound
I ended up back where I started
The song is always the same
Got lonesome fuel for fire
And so my heart is always on the line
I’ve traveled all kinds of places
The story’s always the same
Got lonesome fuel for fire.”
~Fuel for Fire
M.Ward, Transistor Radio